Thursday, 5 March 2009

The Afterlife: A By Product Of Evolution?

Is The Afterlife A Product Of Evolution?
By Miles Weaver

The second interesting conversation I had recently occurred this weekend (somewhere between the hours of 3 and 6a.m. no less), and was again part of a much larger, broader range of topics.

This encounter was something I have briefly touched on before (in the article entitled ‘Death’). my belief that the most basic function of life – all life – is to end. Irrespective of our own human perceptions on the matter - ideas about higher purposes or concepts like peace or love or whatever - we are still just living organisms this planet, ones that share our living space on this green and blue ball of rock with everything else. Our function is simple, breed and die. Spread the genes, give rise to the next generation, then kindly get the hell out of their way. That is the function of all living organisms, to ensure that the species survives and to be sure that the process of life itself continues. It is hardwired, instinctual and completely unwavering. A cold, marching unstoppable machine that drives forwards without any regard to us homo sapiens searching in the dirt for deeper meanings.

Our search for that deeper meaning, I would argue, comes out of a certain conceit that we have as the only species on the planet and the universe (that we know of) that is consciously aware of itself, the privileged few who can gaze out at the stars that have watched over us since the birth of our species and wonder what, where and why they are. Our questioning of why we are here has led to some interesting theories and ideas about our purpose and our mortality. Yet in looking past the cold obviousness of the truth – that we are nothing more than organic life slavishly serving the same purpose as every other organism on the planet – I think that we have tried to elevate our thinking and our species above all other living beings. We see ourselves as something that has evolved to a higher state with a higher purpose, one not bound by the simplistic universal law of ‘Born, breed, be gone’.

Even our most distant history demonstrates this perceptive, from the earliest worshipping of the mysterious and unexplainable forces of nature as conscious entities like ourselves (albeit ones with far more power) our religious perceptions grew and grew, to the extent where we took ourselves out of the circle of global life. This was where we made the distinct definition that we were not like everything else; where we refused to be bound by the instinct that life hardwired into us. The planet’s oldest religion, Hinduism, teaches that when we die, we are reincarnated as another entity in the circle of life. Death is not something to be feared, merely just a transition from one temporary body to another, our soul will maintain itself. We can see a step our clear desire to transcend death, to laugh in the face of the inevitable. While our bodies may die, our souls just slip into a different suit. We are still bound by death, but not longer have any reason to fear it, for it is just a transition.

If we look, however, only a couple of thousand years further on from the genesis of Hinduism, we see that the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks – what many would argue to be the first truly advanced ancient societies – had reached the point where human beings were elevated out of the cycle of mere life and had managed to transcend death altogether. I am referring, of course, to the afterlife. Now, when we die, our souls leave our body and go and party with the Gods for all eternity. Death is not something that affects us, for our consciousness, the think that makes us so very different, so very special, will survive death and be maintain forever.

We here put ourselves as separate, distinct entities. An anomaly to the rest of the planet, one that has no reason to fear death, because for us, it is just the end of the mortal world; there is a whole other plane of existence we have to get to, one where death cannot touch or bother us at all.

I would posit that the concept of the afterlife is a product of the evolution of the thinking of our species. In our effort to escape the confines and diminutive stature of being simple organic life, our religions have all ended up promising some sort of afterlife. Even the eastern religions, which began with Hinduism merely telling us that we were part of an ongoing cycle, have us progressing toward Nirvana, where we can retire our souls from the cycle of existence. In our afterlives, we never really die, we just move onto ‘the next life’ in heaven we get to hang out with God for all eternity, never knowing the fear of death again.

Our initial efforts to separate ourselves from other animals, and also escape the instinctual, constant fear of the finality of death, have resulted in our thinking evolving to a state where we believe wholly and entirely in a another plane of existence waiting for us beyond this one. That a mortal death isn’t really the end of our precious consciousness, our tool that lifts us above our fellow animals, rather that it is only the transition from one point of awareness to the next. It is, in a way, our coping method, an evolutionary by product of our consciousness to try and deal with the finality of death, and remind us that we are different from every other animal on planet earth.

Looking at things clearly though, it is clearly, painfully obvious that there is no evidence whatsoever for an afterlife. Oh sure, we have religious texts, we have beliefs, we have unexplainable things like déjà vu or small Tibetan children answering questions they’d never heard of to prove themselves as the next Dalai Lama, but is there any evidence whatsoever that there is anything at all waiting for us beyond the end of all things? Do not fall back here on your beliefs or your comfort systems, but ask yourself, is there even the remotest hint anywhere in existence that could tell you what happens after you die? The answer is no. We have beliefs, we have faiths, we have feelings and anomalies that are interpreted into giving an indication, and it is not my intention to tell anyone what to believe, but the simple fact is that we have no evidence at all for what happens after you die.

So why did all our beliefs end up promising eternal life after we die? It is easy enough to understand where concepts of God developed from, but where did the notion of the afterlife end up taking such a firm hold? My theory rest above, that it sprung from an early desire to remind ourselves that we were the special ones on this planet, and what could be more special than removing the instinctual fear of death. Over time it grew and grew into what it has come today, where billions of people are convinced, without any evidence to support them, that death is not the end. The afterlife is a by product of our brains evolution. An accidental off shoot of the conceit of intelligence. Now there are some people who are so excited about the next life that they cannot wait for this one to end, and that is sad. For whatever you believe, no matter how firmly believe it, you don’t know what happens at the end. You only know for definite that you’ve got this life, and you should seize the very brief opportunity that it gives you.

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